An unintended but positive spin-off of the Iraq War has been a shift in the debate from the 'war on terrorism' to anti-U.S. sentiment.
Last week, the U.S. Embassy here organized a live video conference between Islamabad-based representatives of Pakistani civil society, including politicians, and an advisory panel formed by the U.S. Congress in Washington to examine the reasons and root causes of anti-U.S. sentiment in the Muslim World.
A similar exercise was carried out in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, last week.
The U.S. advisory panel included former policymakers, academics and U.S. nationals of Arab and Muslim origin.
Interestingly, at the same time that these events were taking place, one of the United States' pre-eminent experts on this issue of the image of Islam and American policy, Prof Edward Said, died in New York.
His two books, 'Orientalism', published in 1978, and 'Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We see the Rest of the World', published soon after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1981, are landmark studies that remain relevant today.
Although the collision between U.S. foreign policy and much of the Muslim world became more pronounced after Sep. 11, the issue of image is linked more to political interests and predates the Sep. 11 attacks.
In his book, 'Covering Islam', Said said that in the United States "there is a consensus on Islam as a kind of scapegoat for everything we do not happen to like about the world's new political, social, and economic patterns.''
''For the right, Islam represents barbarism; for the left, medieval theocracy; for the center, a kind of distasteful exoticism. In all camps, however, there is agreement that even though little enough is known about the Islamic world there is not much to be approved of either,'' he wrote.
While Muslims, as both Pakistan President Gen Pervez Musharraf and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad rightly put it before the U.N. General Assembly, feel that their religion is being 'demonized' and that they are being 'discriminated' against after Sep. 11, U.S. journalists, academics and policymakers have been forced to confront widespread sentiment against the United States.
It is a sentiment that is no longer confined to the Muslim world. On Saturday, most European capitals witnessed popular street demonstrations against the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The Muslim world witnessed only two such rallies, and that too in the countries closest to Washington, Turkey and Egypt.
During the Islamabad-Washington video conference, it was pointed out that the main problem that has spawned anti-U.S. sentiment is U.S. government policy.
This policy now broadly revolves around three contentious areas.
First, after the Iraq invasion and occupation, there is a widespread belief that an 'imperial America' is keen to capture oil resources and seek a colonial-style political restructuring of the Middle East.
In this context, Washington is no longer shy of acting as an arrogant power, flaunting its military might and unabashedly taking pride in 'imperialism', something that the United States always used to deny and deride.
Second, for many Muslims, the interests of a foreign country like Israel are now taking precedence over the U.S. own national security interests and image in the Muslim world.
For them, U.S. policy toward Palestine is so blatantly one-sided that they have virtually lost hope that Washington is in a position to pressure Israel, more so with a difficult upcoming presidential election where they see the Jewish vote as being crucial.
Third, U.S. policy toward Muslims is now marked by confusion. Even 'moderate' allies like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt are sometimes not sure whether they are friend or foe. Elected leaders like Palestine's Yasser Arafat and Iran's Mohammed Khatami are under pressure, despite the tall talk of promoting democracy in the Muslim world.
U.S. journalists and writers too now link growing resentment in the Muslim world with U.S. policies. These are not just foreign policy questions.
For instance, Clinton adviser Joseph Stiglitz in his book, 'The Roaring Nineties: Seeds of Destruction', did a candid critique of U.S. trade and economic policies.
He wrote: ''The policies we pushed and the way we pushed them generated enormous resentment. The already visible results include growing anti-Americanism in Asia and Latin America.''
''Even if our economy had not faltered, our global strategy was not likely to succeed. It was based on putting aside principles -- principles of social justice, equity, fairness, that we stressed at home --- to get the best bargain we could for American special interests,'' he added.
This obsession to appease 'special interests', be it Israel in foreign policy or cotton farmers in the case of trade policy, lies at the heart of the United States sacrificing its national interests for protecting the interests of a few, at huge political cost. This is evident also from the failure at the World Trade Organization (WTO) talks in Cancun this month.
In a Sep. 25 column in 'The New York Times', Tom Friedman tried to 'connect the dots' between Cancun and the 'war on terrorism': ''I would bet any amount of money that when it came to deciding the (U.S. President George W) Bush team's position at Cancun, no thought was given to its impact on the war on terrorism.''
''Wouldn't it have been wise for the United States to take the initiative at Cancun, and offer to reduce our farm subsidies and textile tariffs, so some of the poorest countries, like Pakistan and Egypt, could raise their standards of living and also become better customers for U.S. goods?'' he asked.
As Said predicted in one of his last columns, while lamenting the ''blind imperial arrogance'' of the United States, ''we are in for many more years of turmoil and misery in the Middle East, where one of the main problem is, to put it plainly as possible, U.S. power''.
He had concluded: ''What the United States refuses to see clearly it can hardly hope to remedy.''
Copyright © 2003 IPS-Inter Press Service